African Union-brokered peace talks between the warring parties in Ethiopia are to be held in South Africa on Monday to seek a cease-fire and avert a humanitarian catastrophe in what is now the bloodiest conflict in the world.
Ethiopian and Eritrean government forces, backed by ethnic militias, have made major gains in recent weeks in their offensive against the Tigrayans.
They have converged on the town of Axum, about 137 miles from Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, after taking control of three key towns to the north and south of the city in recent days.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made an impassioned plea this week for peace, describing the level of need in Ethiopia as “staggering”.
He said that even before the fighting started up again in August, 13 million people were starving or required other support across the region, the result of a two-year-long blockade by Addis Ababa.
Jan Nyssen, a Dutch geographer working in the region, estimated that hundreds of children are starving to death every day in Tigray.
The total number of civilian casualties since the war began two years ago is estimated to be in the region of 600,000.
The three African countries on the UN Security Council – Gabon, Ghana and Kenya have called for a Security Council meeting on Friday to discuss the political and humanitarian situation in Tigray and to demand an immediate ceasefire and urgent relief for displaced and trapped civilians.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) warned this week that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were targeting civilians. The ICG called on governments to warn Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki of punitive consequences should their troops continue to target civilians as they move deeper into Tigray.
Kenyan political analyst Rashid Abdi says he has been told by Tigrayan civil society that upwards of 500,000 people have fled the advancing force from towns in the north and are living in the open, without food, water and shelter.
The developments come as diplomats seek to finalise plans for peace talks set to start in South Africa on Monday 24 October.
Both the Ethiopian government and The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the government of the Tigray region, said they were planning to attend the peace talks.
At this stage it is uncertain whether the Tigrayans are planning to retreat into mountainous areas to regroup as they did early in the conflict.